Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Study Guide

Dee Alexander Brown

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Chapter 7 : "The Only Good Indian Is a Dead Indian" | Summary



In spring 1866 several bands of Southern Cheyennes are living with Red Cloud's Oglala Teton Sioux in Powder River country. Some decide to go south for summer buffalo hunting at their old home of Smoky Hill. This is prohibited by the treaty of 1865, but the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers don't care. Bolstered by news of Red Cloud's success in the north, the Dog Soldiers feel like they can push the white men off their land too.

Fourteen Dog Soldier leaders travel to Fort Larned to meet with General Winfield Scott Hancock in the winter of 1867. He summons them to a night council, which the Cheyennes think is a bad sign. His announcement that he and his soldiers are going to visit the Cheyenne camp the next day is an even worse one. The last time white soldiers came into a Cheyenne camp was at Sand Creek (see Chapter 4). Hancock is irritated by the small number of chiefs at the meeting, and he demands to know where Roman Nose is. The other Cheyennes explain that Roman Nose is a warrior, but not a chief. Only chiefs were invited to the council.

Roman Nose is upset when he learns Hancock means to bring soldiers into the Cheyenne camp. He suggests they break up camp and move north, but the other chiefs want to work out an agreement with Hancock. Roman Nose would rather kill him. When the soldiers appear the next day, Roman Nose is elected the band's war leader. Bull Bear is by his side to keep him from doing anything rash.

The Cheyennes form a battle line a mile long. Roman Nose and Hancock have a brief conversation mediated by agent Edward Wynkoop. The Cheyennes don't want war, and the women and children have already run away in fear. Hancock insists Bull Bear and Roman Nose bring them back. The rest of the warriors go with them. When it becomes apparent they aren't coming back, Hancock has their camp burned to the ground. In retaliation, the Dog Soldiers and their Sioux allies raid stage stations and railroad workers' camps, and rip out telephone lines.

Many U.S. officials are embarrassed by how poorly Hancock handled things with the Cheyennes. Others, like General Sherman, think it calls for even sterner action. Sherman would rather skip peace negotiations and just start killing Indians, but in the summer of 1867, he is instructed to do the former. The new peace plan would send the Cheyennes, Arapahos, Kiowas, Comanches, and Prairie Apaches to a big reservation south of the Arkansas River. Cattle would be provided, as would education about farming.

Roman Nose eventually agrees to meet with Superintendent Thomas Murphy at Medicine Lodge Creek in October 1867. After being assured that the burning of the Cheyenne village was not sanctioned by the president, Roman Nose says he will watch the treaty proceedings from afar. He and his followers will join in "if it please[s] them."

The Kiowas and Comanches sign the treaty on October 21. Black Kettle won't sign without the support of the other Cheyenne leaders, and Little Raven of the Arapahos won't sign until the Cheyennes sign. The majority of the Dog Soldier leaders sign a week later, but not Roman Nose. He and 300–400 followers head north.

Most of the Cheyennes and Arapahos camp below the Arkansas River near Fort Larned during the winter of 1867–68. There is a food shortage by spring. The treaty is still being argued in Washington, so there is no money to purchase supplies. Wynkoop can't even provide arms and ammunition to the warriors so they can hunt. Young men leave the reservation to hunt and raid settlements, and Black Kettle ignores Wynkoop's pleas to keep them "off the warpath."

General Philip Sheridan organizes a company of scouts to hunt down illicit Indian camps in August 1868. A Sioux hunting party spots the scouts on September 16. They alert their people and Roman Nose's Cheyennes, who prepare to attack the next day. Despite his "protective medicine," Roman Nose knows this will be his last battle. The Cheyennes ride out as one unit like the white soldiers do, following Roman Nose as he makes a beeline for the soldiers hunkered down on Beecher's Island. A bullet goes through his spine. He dies that night, but the battle—known as the Battle of Beecher's Island—rages on for eight days. When it ends, the Cheyennes move south to be with Black Kettle, who takes them back "like a forgiving father."

Black Kettle hears rumors about soldiers headed for his camp near the Washita River in November 1868. Determined not to have another Sand Creek on his hands, he decides to take a delegation to meet the soldiers and tell them the village is peaceful. The soldiers arrive before he can do so. Black Kettle and his wife jump onto his pony to deliver messages of peace, but they are both killed minutes later. Over 100 other Cheyennes are also killed.

General George Armstrong Custer and his soldiers retreat as the Arapahos, Kiowas, and Comanches race toward the commotion. General Sheridan commends Custer for "efficient and gallant services rendered." The two men go to Fort Cobb, where they demand all Indians come to "make peace" or "be hunted down and killed."

Little Robe, the new leader of Black Kettle's band, goes to Fort Cobb in December to ask for food. Sheridan agrees, as long as the Cheyennes surrender. Little Robe has no other choice. Tosawi of the Comanches brings his people to surrender a few days later. He promises Sheridan he is a good Indian, to which Sheridan replies, "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead."

Little Robe and Tall Bull get into a fight over the future of the Southern Cheyennes. Tall Bull refuses to settle on the reservation in Indian Territory. He takes 200 Dog Soldier warriors and their families to live with the Northern Cheyennes in Powder River country. They are ambushed along the way by U.S. soldiers. The lives of their dead warriors are avenged by raids on settlements where the Dog Soldiers kill "as mercilessly as the soldiers had killed their people." They also take two German women hostage. In July 1869 the Dog Soldiers are found by Pawnee scouts working for Major Frank North. North's soldiers raid the camp, killing everyone except Tall Bull's wife and child.


General Hancock says he came to Fort Larned to prevent a war with the Southern Cheyenne Dog Soldiers, but he really ends up doing the opposite. It is he who sets the tone with the ill-advised night meeting, which sets the chiefs on edge, and it is he who insists on bringing his soldiers to the Cheyenne camp. The Cheyennes insist they want peace, but Hancock never does. He wants the Indians to respect the extensive reach of white people, who are "spreading out. They require room and cannot help it." He also wants the Indians to respect his authority, which is why he burns their camp to the ground when they fail to return from retrieving the women and children. It's also why Roman Nose's absence from the meeting with the Dog Soldier chiefs at Fort Larned rankles him so much. Roman Nose isn't a chief, but he's one of the most well-respected Dog Soldiers. He's so respected, in fact, that the Dog Soldiers use the battle formation he taught them—the united front, which was the white man's tactic—at the Battle of Beecher's Island. Just because he's a war leader doesn't mean the other warriors have to follow his commands. They choose to because of how much they admire him and draw inspiration from him. Hancock and the other white government officials know how much influence Roman Nose has, and how important he is in getting the Southern Cheyennes to abide by the government's wishes. Hancock sees Roman Nose as his Indian counterpart, and he takes Roman Nose's absence as a sign of disrespect, which it isn't. He just wasn't invited to the meeting.

The more followers Roman Nose and other Dog Soldiers gather, the less influence Black Kettle has over his people. Just as Santee Sioux chief Little Crow disagrees with his younger band members about the necessity of keeping peace with the white man through treaties and agreements, Black Kettle finds himself at odds with the young warriors in his tribe. Although they view him as little more than "a beaten old man," he understands the strength of the U.S. Army and what his people are up against. He also knows his tribe's limitations. They don't have the manpower, weapons, or resources to push the white men back east, so they need to figure out some other way to keep their way of life intact. Black Kettle chooses to do this through diplomacy. Warrior societies like the Dog Soldiers see Black Kettle's willingness to negotiate with the white men as a sign of weakness. It is natural to want to retaliate when one's people are under fire, which is why Roman Nose's idealistic and confident outlook is so appealing to the younger members of the tribe.

It is unclear why Roman Nose is so certain of his death prior to the Battle of Beecher's Island. It could be because his protective medicine had been tainted, or perhaps he had a vision or a sense he would not survive. In either case, his death is a blow to the young Cheyenne warriors who idolize him. Brown says his loss was like "a great light going out in the sky." More than anything, Roman Nose gave his tribesmen hope. He was confident the Indians would someday prevail, and reclaim their land and way of life from the white man. This hope seems to have died with him. The Southern Cheyennes who had once followed Roman Nose return to live with Black Kettle. He may be old and he may take the path of least resistance, but he is still alive.

Unfortunately, Black Kettle doesn't stay alive for long. He does everything he can think of to avoid a repeat of Sand Creek, yet he finds himself in the exact same situation just two years later. There is little he could have done to avoid this—Sheridan and Custer were not going to be satisfied until they killed as many Indians as possible. The attack on the Southern Cheyennes at Washita River was not spur-of-the-moment. It had been planned weeks in advance, and several government officials were in on it, including the commander at Fort Cobb. Just as at Sand Creek when Major Scott J. Anthony told Black Kettle his people would be safe at their camp near the creek, General William B. Hazen tells Black Kettle the Cheyennes won't be attacked if they "return to their villages and keep their young men there." Sheridan and Custer wanted as many Indians as possible to be in the camp, especially the warriors. They weren't as dangerous if they were caught off-guard.

Custer's troops were told to kill only the warriors at the Washita River camp. Women, children, and old men were to be taken hostage. However, this is not what happened. The soldiers "found it much more efficient and safe to kill indiscriminately." Of the 103 Cheyennes killed that day, only 11 were warriors. The practice of killing women and children violates the unspoken code of combat. Several soldiers sympathetic to the Indians claim throughout the book that Indians would never have treated white women and children the way soldiers treated theirs. This mattered little to Sheridan and Custer. Their goal was in line with the unspoken policy of eradicating the American Indian race from U.S. soil. Both men disliked the very idea of a race of men who lived outside the control and influence of white society, and it was Sheridan's words to Tosawi that inspired the oft-repeated phrase, "The only good Indian is a dead Indian." Sheridan steadfastly denied ever saying this, and some accounts of his life indicate he wasn't as hateful as Brown's narrative makes him out to be. Yet it can't be denied that he encouraged the men under his command, including Custer, to destroy entire villages and cause bodily harm to people whose only crime was to exist. It is also true that he lied to his own superiors to show "just cause" for unprovoked attacks. Sheridan may not have explicitly said he wanted all Indians dead, but he clearly indicated he didn't want them to remain alive.

It's important to remember that the Indians weren't blameless in all of this. Brown writes about western expansion and the Indian Wars from the American Indian point of view, but this doesn't mean he leaves out their more unflattering actions. A good example is the two female German hostages taken by Tall Bull's Dog Soldiers in 1869. The women cause trouble for the Dog Soldiers, who are constantly trying to evade the soldiers and Pawnee scouts tracking them, but Tall Bull insists they are not to be released. He wants them to be "treated as the Cheyenne women had been treated by the Bluecoats." This indicates physical abuse, or even sexual assault. Tall Bull could easily have let the women go, but he and many other Indians believed in the idea of "an eye for an eye." When the white man strikes, the Indians do the same thing in return. This doesn't make their actions excusable, but it also doesn't make them villains. No one is entirely good or bad, and war makes people do terrible things they wouldn't do in times of peace. Brown points out the Indians' mistakes and flaws to emphasize they are just as human as the people trying to kill them.

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